At times, as many as 125 firefighters, paramedics and other emergency workers gingerly dug through the rubble to rescue victims, aided by a couple of rescue dogs.
At a 6 p.m. news conference, the mayor grew somewhat testy as reporters pressed him, city Licenses and Inspections Commissioner Carlton Williams, and others for information about city inspections and oversight of the building, its controversial landlord and their demolition contract.
"I'm not here for drama -- I'm here to share some information," Nutter said as the journalists pressed for details. He noted that inspectors from federal agencies such as the Department of Labor and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration were already on site seeking to learn about the demolition and how the collapse occurred.
Authorities had no easy answers yesterday about what caused the collapse, other than to say it was an active demolition site. A power shovel was in the demolition zone, and its operator was among the five people injured who were treated at the Hospital at the University of Pennsylvania.
Elizabeth Datner, vice chairwoman for clinical operations in the department of emergency medicine at HUP, said five victims were treated there for minor injuries -- all were in stable condition and felt lucky to be alive.
"We don't see buildings collapse every day," Datner said. "Everyone who came in was talking when they came and was able to speak to us and tell us how to contact their family."
"As you can imagine they were a bit stunned," she said. "They were saying that they heard a loud noise and the ceiling began falling."
Other victims were treated at Hahnemann University Hospital and Thomas Jefferson University Hospital.
The building is listed as owned by STB Investments of New York City, linked to Big Apple real-estate magnate Richard Basciano, who owns many blighted properties in Center City. For decades, a succession of administrations in City Hall have had complicated relationships with Basciano and with his mentor, the late Sam Rappaport.
Basciano and the controversial contractor hired to perform the demolition job will likely become the focus of the probe in the days ahead, but yesterday was mostly about the shock and awe of a building collapse on Philadelphia's main east-west thoroughfare.
The collapse wreaked havoc for both mass transit and for motorists. For hours after the collapse, police closed many streets in the normally bustling western portion of Center City to traffic, setting up a perimeter from 20th Street west to the Schuylkill and from Walnut Street north to the Ben Franklin Parkway.
"It's scary to see Market Street totally shut down -- a street that normally is so busy," said Ed Davis, 42, who works at Jefferson Hospital. "It sounded like a random accident, but everyone first feared the worst."
Bryant Richardson, 37, who does building maintenance in the area, was in a meeting when he heard a TV news bulletin about the collapse. Richardson wondered whether a lapse of "preventive maintenance" prompted the shabby building to collapse.
Center City worker Carolyn Moore, 30, agreed: "For this to just happen out of the blue, this opens a lot of questions."
Patrick Kim, the trauma-program director at HUP, said it was fortunate that the patients they saw had fairly minor injuries -- at least physically.
"We expect the physical injuries to heal up pretty nicely," Kim said. "I can't say too much about the other types of psychological trauma and other mental stress that they might be recovering from after something like this."
- Staff writers Solomon Leach, John Moritz, Stephanie Farr, Morgan Zalot and Oscar Castillo contributed to this report.
On Twitter: @DanaDiFilippo
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